Estranging the everyday

Designer Nelly Ben Hayoun relishes extreme projects, doing things like coaxing you to become an astronaut in your living room while dark energy is being created in your kitchen, and a volcano is erupting on your sofa. By devising subversive events and experiences, it is her mission to bring chaos and disorder into the world of branding, science and design.

Published in DAMn 57, July/August 2016

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“The Event”, writes conspicuously contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek is something that “shatters ordinary life”. This can range from a celebrity scandal or political uprising to a new art form or something as personal as falling in love. The Event might seem disproportionate to the outcome, but “after an Event, nothing remains the same.”

Designer Nelly Ben Hayoun is such an event. With her bustling energy barely zipping into her astronaut suit, her beguiling French brogue and self-described “tiger eyes”, she has pushed her way into the nonparaeil conservatories of science such as the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute in the United States, the Super Kamiokande neutrino collider in Japan and the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The results have been unprecedented. Who would ever have dreamt up pooling the amateur musical talents of scientists to put together the International Space Orchestra that not only retells the story of the 1969 moon landing, but plays alongside Damon Albarn and Beck, records the opera in George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch where Star Wars was shot, and releases the recordings into space to orbit the earth on board the International Space Station. Never mind who, to what purpose?

“My friends and family call me the hammer, because when I have something in mind, I will never stop until it comes to fruition,” Ben Hayoun laughs. Her intention with this approach towards the haloed halls of science is not only to rock the pedestal of the world’s esteemed untouchables, but also to make them human: ““I’m not working for scientists. I’m working for the public to access the sublime in science,” she explains that she refuses to defer to the scientists’ authority, especially since 70% of space scientists are male. “And I take the public places members of the public haven’t been.”

Besides being an event in herself, Ben Hayoun also designs events that allow the public to experience the world of science. These include Super K Sonic BOOOOum in which the audience donned helmets, white rubber shoes and boiler suits before being rowed in dinghies through a water and balloon-filled installation that simulates the Japanese neutrino observatory. After being addressed by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a light and sound show emulating a neutrino collision is witnessed. In a similar vein, the Soyuz Chair simulates what it feels like to lift off in the Soyuz Rocket.

With her The Other Volcano project, Ben Hayoun worked with a volcanologist and pyrotechnic designer to create a domestic appliance that would randomly go off, just as a volcano would, but in one’s own home. She advertised for volunteers who would live with the volcano. “Obviously we are not giving you a volcano as it’s filled with gunpowder, but let’s engage you in a debate of why you want to risk your life!?”exclaims Ben Hayoun.

“I prefer the process of accessing the impossible than to actually seeing it happening,” she goes on. One might say she is designing our imaginations then, and she does constantly refer back to the big influence that Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty has on her work. The theatre of cruelty is based on the principle of viscerally overwhelming audiences’ senses in order to evoke an unmediated response directly from their subconscious. “And I get quite violent with them,” Ben Hayoun points to the Super K Sonic BOOOOum.

Inspired by Jean Paul Sartre’s book No Exit, The Other Volcano is also about domestic mundaneness that leads to existential disinterest. In Žižekian terms, the volcano is an event used to disrupt the everyday life, create a near death experience and embody thy self again.

Ben Hayoun loves her French philosophers, however, and it is armed with Jean Baudrillard that she goes in search of the reality behind our Hollywood-constructed hyperreality of doomsday in her latest project, Disaster Playground. By exploring the 20-people long chain of command between the first sighting of an asteroid attack and the decision to act, it becomes apparent that it’s nothing like Bruce Willis with a drill or the president with a big red button in their drawer. In fact, it’s rather ordinary and everyday things could go wrong, such as someone not having their cellphone on them. A multi-platform initiative that includes a book, an app, a video series, an exhibition and an experience, it is through the Netflix-distributed film that it is most widely known.

“I engineer situations by looking at systems, how I can design and modify them, how I can engineer for social actions,” Ben Hayoun responds to whether she is increasingly becoming more of a film director than designer. For instance, she explains that the giant red telephone and plastic dinosaur prop in the film are based on Bertoldt’s Brecht’s epic theatre, designed to create an imaginary estrangement and reintroduce wonder into the everyday. This “empowers intelligent agents” to see the artificiality of the disaster system and “render it visible”, she explains.

Ben Hayoun’s work is as far removed from the luxury chair and lifestyle industry of the Milan Design Week as one gets. In fact, the last time she was there was in 2012, performing “A Milanese Foley” in which she used the craft techniques of Foley Artists, sound film artists, to perform the sound of sitting on a Barcelona chair, typing on a Valentino typewriter and so on. “It wasn’t easy,” Ben Hayoun confesses that people didn’t understand what she was doing, and even the London Design Museum turned down her residency proposal. Four years later and the overriding trend of Milan Design Week 2016, according to Het Nieuwe Institute in Rotterdam, is performance becoming recognized as a medium of design. Yes, this little pioneer is an event with unforeseen consequences.

It’s first thing on Monday morning. We’re sitting in Shoreditch House in London. Ben Hayoun has barely gulped down her earl grey tea and butter-and-jam bread, but she’s got a plane to catch. Her next project is about outer space colonization and looking for new life forms, she says gathering her things. “And it’s got a Viking ship, but that’s all I can tell you,” she kisses both cheeks, and she’s gone.

From gut to gallery

Everything we were taught to believe about fearing bacteria is being upheaved by a growing movement of designers and scientists.

Published in DAMn 55: March/April 2016

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Some 40 trillion invisible organisms cover every surface of our body, inside and out. This microbiome of bacteria, yeast, viruses, and fungi that we have accumulated throughout our life, since birth, is especially concentrated in our gut. The role E. coli plays in digestion is well known, and sometimes our candida or staph levels will get a bit boisterous and we’ll have a yeast infection or a sty. But up until recently, these mysterious personal squatters have not been given much attention, based solely on the assumption that the microscopic organisms live in neutral harmony with each other and with us. But what if our bodies are, in fact, made up of more microbiome cells than human cells?

Since we are truly more microbiome than human, what does it even mean to be a person anymore? As opposed to our obsession with everyone being an individual, are we actually ecosystems or superorganisms or conglomerate ecological corporations? This is the inspiration behind Austrian designer Sonja Bäumel’s current project, which involves researching the social interactions of bacteria and of other microorganisms, in collaboration with a scientist and a cultural historian. Research has linked depression, mood-swings, stress, cravings, diabetes, heart disease, and weight management with our invisible cohabitants, meaning that they could very well be contributing to our consciousness and decision-making. Scientists at Virginia Tech have announced that they may soon be controlling a robot brain using E. coli. Bäumel has been working with bacteria for over seven years, since graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven with a project exploring bacteria’s relation to fashion, which earned her top honours. Since then, others have developed bacterial fabrication techniques, such as New York fashion designer Suzanne Lee, who produced a Biocouture range of leather jackets.

In the same vein, German design student Julia Krayer recently showed Honingleder at Cologne Design Week. Translated as honey leather, it’s a skin-like material produced by bacteria that, during the fermentation process (of the same sort used in the beverage industry), metabolise sugar and secondary plant compounds into cellulose fibres. The result, says Krayer, is “a range of materials that can be slotted somewhere between textile, leather, and paper.” By incorporating the positive associations of honey and leather, she also hopes to challenge people’s perceptions of bacteria as ‘disgusting’ and ‘dangerous’.

How do you do?

It is this question of our relationship to and perception of bacteria that has also taken over Bäumel’s original fashion-based practice: “Now I’m figuring out that it’s more about finding alternatives for the platforms surrounding the body, not necessarily about finding solutions for the existing fashion system.” Recent works have included an agar cast of herself imprinted with her own microbiome and allowed to grow during an exhibition at the Waag Society in Amsterdam last year, and continuous explorations into visualising the bacteria on our body through dyes in petri dishes. Destigmatising bacteria is an important component, and for her on-going Metabodies project she obtained the handprints of a couple after exercise, after sex, and after showering, collecting these in petri dishes. People were surprised to discover that the most bacteria were present after showering, challenging our perception of what ‘dirty’ means. Bäumel explains that our skin’s pores release a new layer of bacterial protection each time we wash.

The importance of preserving our bacterial pals in order to maintain healthy immune systems and prevent the increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance and superbugs, is the message behind a fun, pop-up Pet Shop by the Waag Society – an institute that has been facilitating trans-disciplinary experimentation and research in the fields of art, science, and technology for over 20 years. Friendly, adorable micro-organisms with names like night-owl photobacteria, cool-cat spirulina, and fluffy fungi, as well as a range of DIY hardware that includes a microscope and an incubator, aim to appeal to kids, creatives, and hackers alike. By anthropomorphising microorganisms, the hope is that we’ll resist the temptation to use antibacterial household cleaners and toiletries.

Who’s watching you?

Not destroying our microbiome is a good thing, unless you’re trying to hide from Big Brother, as designer Emma Dorothy Conley explored in her Microbiome Security Agency project. Conley latched onto the discovery that each person’s microbiome is completely unique, like a fingerprint. In theory, it can provide information about our lifestyle, the people we’re living with, and where we’ve been – this is how shoplifter spray works, by intentionally adding trace-DNA to the suspect’s microbiome. “As soon as something is touted as being so specific to an individual that it can identify us, we need to ask how this will infringe on our personal privacy”, says the Ireland-based American. Winner of the 2015 Bio Art and Design Award in the Netherlands, she had collaborated with scientist Guus Roeselers to work out how one might camouflage the bacterial traces one leaves everywhere. The result is a range of pseudo cosmetics that adds so much raw DNA data to your microbiome that it would overload an identification test with too much information. An installation at the MU Artspace in Eindhoven allowed people to contribute bacteria – the more bacterial-DNA data included in the cosmetics, the more effective they were – and to apply it to themselves in powder form.

For Bäumel however, bacteria and microorganisms are not simply inert DNA; she is therefore pushing to adopt the methodology of metagenomics in her practice. This means that rather than looking at a single species in isolation and from the perspective of DNA, the emphasis is on trans-species social interaction and communication. In short: bacterial intelligence. “Only because they’re smaller – scale is a very interesting aspect in this project – are they seen to have less value than us”, says Bäumel.

Growing concern

A typography project by Ori Eliasar called Living Language unpeels some of the philosophical layers embedded in the notion of humans having an intelligent microbiome. Eliasar created ancient Palaeo-Hebrew letters in petri dishes using bacteria, and then added algal proteins in the shape of the modern Hebrew alphabet. As the bacteria grow, the initial shapes change into the new letters. “Using my research, experiments, and results, I am hoping to infuse nature, culture, character, and language with some new theories of my own”, says the Israeli about his graduation project.

Working in a school comes with certain liberties; however, for galleries and institutes moving into the realm of art and design utilising the medium of bacteria, from inert DNA to actual living matter, things are less obvious. This is unchartered terrain and it raises an entirely unexplored field of ethical and technical presentation issues. Bäumel experienced this first-hand when her installation at the Waag Society last year was removed prematurely because the results had not been anticipated by the organisation. Although disappointed, Bäumel is anything but put off; instead she appears incentivised by the challenges posed by being a pioneer. It would take such a spirit to be drawn into the field to begin with, but it’s Bäumel’s slow, methodological approach and her evolving personal attachment to microorganisms which indicate that her work is not gimmicky. “Caring about them is caring about us”, she smiles.